On “pop writing”

I’m gonna repeat the chorus, and I’m gonna sing it ’til I’m blue in the face

This is a note in response to various posts written on Medium in the last few weeks: one of which was effectively a ripoff another, one of which brought up the fairly obvious point that top content producers (by means of likes & shares, not quality, which is subjective) might simply rip each other off, and a final one which brought to light the inherent problem with all of this.

The problem described isn’t specific to Medium: virtually all written nonfiction on the Internet that gets clicked on by the masses is specifically meant to get clicked on by the masses. A great subset of writers on Medium are no different. Original, interesting writing gets shoved into obscurity while the majority of readers see these repetitive listicles, hollow advice columns and “thought pieces” about Startups, Wanderlust and Life Hacking – because that’s what people appear to want to read. The numbers show it.

I’m fine with that, sure, in small doses. These days, you need some positive motivation to deal with the shitstorm mess that is modern reality. But after a while, as Ben Belser suggests, it gets old. Thousands of “influencers” circlejerking on hearts and fuzzies to promote themselves without giving a shit about what they’re actually saying, robbing the Internet of its soul.

I realized something the other day: Isn't this basically the same as pop music?

Hundreds of thousands of songwriters, composers and performers over generations, mostly working within the same general realm of tonality, mostly attempting to portray the same general emotions and ideas, oftentimes even ripping each other off for the sake of marketability. There are millions of blog posts, ironically enough, about how to do this.

Think about it: all of the most popular songs in the US right now can be confined to a tiny number of styles (hip hop, synth pop, country, with a few rock hits and retro throwbacks). Almost all of these songs are about the following: love, sex, drugs, partying, loneliness, angst. Many even feature the same ideas (emotional or musical) or even the same artists (looking at you, Tay Swift). There are incredibly few exceptions to this rule in the past 15 years – nu metal was an incredibly dumb angry fad, but even Limp Bizkit’s lyrics largely stayed within the confines of the aforementioned 6 topics.

How is this any different from going on Medium one morning and seeing virtually the exact same blog posts you saw 2 weeks prior? The posts are obviously not the same – maybe a different author, a different sponsor, a different tip to make you fitter, happier, more productive – but they're largely interchangeable. Sometimes they are even virtually the same. Like pop music.

So I’ve started to call the majority of what Medium feeds me something else: pop writing. Marketable, interchangeable writing to satisfy the masses. Blogs (at least the most popular ones on Medium) are no longer personal or honest or catering to a particular interest – their sole purpose is to maximize the marketability of the writer’s brand. Not unlike any top 40 artist, CamMi Pham (whose writing and general vibe mostly infuriate me) has a carefully curated personal brand, which draws elements from positivity-pumping wellness and advice writing (and sometimes, directly from other writers). She’s trying to be the Tay Swift of your Medium feed. This fine – millions of people love Taylor Swift, and thousands of people love CamMi Pham’s deliberate, speech-like writing on learning and unlearning and bettering oneself.

You want to figure out how her written brand works? It’s pretty simple, actually.

Come up with a really fucking edgy, attention-grabbing title.

Start with some one-sentence paragraphs.

Write increasingly powerful and emotional statements in those paragraphs.

Maybe a sentence implying initial self-doubt.

Then throw out a big initial thesis.

Usually in bold or headline style.

Then repeat that thesis verbatim, followed by a supporting reason.

The repeat that thesis verbatim again, with further reasons.

What about this other reason? No need to worry, because here’s that thesis again. With another supporting reason.

And that is the thesis, verbatim once more.


Pure, unadulterated crap.


King Crimson (which most people probably know, sadly, from when Kanye West sampled them) have this great song called “Happy With What You Have To Be Happy With” which is basically a brilliant exercise in hollow meta-songwriting. Most of the lyrics discuss the structure of the song itself:

And when I have some words

this is the way I’ll sing

through a distortion box

to make them menacing

It makes for a great commentary on the cookie-cutter nature of pop music construction – there are tropes that one can follow to clearly evoke some kind of emotional response, so we exploit them for maximum feeling. Adrian Belew (the singer) clearly describes the section of the song, what emotion must be evoked within it, and how he intends to portray that emotion; by the time he’s in the second chorus, he’s made it clear the song itself has no meaning: “I’ll brew another pot / of ambiguity.” The bridge, “you have to be happy with what you have to be happy with,” just reinforces that – it’s a nothing statement, weirdly urgent but pointless, endlessly repeating like the advice pieces on my Medium top feed.

(Ironically, that song was written music-first, and the lyrics were thrown in last minute as placeholder. Do you think Adrian Belew cares about what I think the song means? He’s not even making pop music.)

Like how pop music leverages chord progressions and romantic/lonely/excited feelings, Pop Writing leverages the nurturing nature of self-help, the inspiring nature of startup culture & life disruption, pandering political fluff and a few other obvious topics. Let’s call them “subgenres.” Each subgenre, and some artists within that subgenre, have particular conventions that are proven to be more effective than others. It’s already obvious that clickbait article titles is a common theme among all subgenres of pop writing. Some others: pick an icon and find an obscure fact about him or her; pick a bad quality about yourself and gradually turn it good; pander to the founders of an amazing product; respond to that pandering by shitting on said product; give advice to the most blogged-about professionals.

Like how pop music is hard to pigeonhole by conventions but easy to pick out, pop writing is hard to pigeonhole by topic to easy to pick out. One can easily pick up on the writing style of a blogger and exploit it for their own gain. Just pick a topic (even if it’s been beaten to death), read a few popular articles on that topic and pick up on the sentence and paragraph structure. Write a few test-drive articles to hone your skill, and then start marketing your brand. You’re basically doing what Taylor Swift did when she decided she wanted to move into pop music – developing your brand to reach a new audience.

If that’s what you feel like doing with your spare time, weirdo.

Medium is going the way of the music industry, but that's fine.

Nothing should stop CamMi Pham from writing like she does. Medium definitely shouldn’t stop her. That's the free market blogging economy at work. Instead, let's just call it what it is: happy, cookie-cutter, highly targeted pop blogging that will gain her new followers. The market demands it.

The problem seems to ultimately lie in the writer’s convictions. Yann Girard might be more genuine in his writing, but he might not be. Someone writing about a life tip they just discovered might genuinely be so excited about it that they’re compelled to share it with the world. S/he might also be plagiarizing someone else. Who knows?

Maybe the problem ultimately lies in the newfound stigma for content marketing and “social influencers” – people who are paid to get clicks and followers, and thus the honesty of their writing is instantly called into question. Maybe these people could rebrand themselves to appear more honest. CamMi Pham is unapologetic – she admits to being a total fraud and attempts to justify it (within her standard writing convention, of course). Yes, she might be encouraging young writers to steal ideas from others and develop a contrived style of writing that eschews honesty for marketability – but again, if that’s what people want to read, then more power to the writers.

For those who don’t like it: welcome to the beginnings of literary snobbery. Three immediate suggestions for you:

  1. If you don't like pop writing, simply don't read it. Just as I usually avoid the Top 40 like the plague, stop reading the Top Posts on Medium and find writing you like via other means: use Medium's tags, start curating who you follow, or look elsewhere entirely.
  2. If you think Medium isn’t listening and want to help out writers you care about, start your own subculture. Radio failed to capture many niche music genres and scenes, so music blogs popped up to try and promote music in those niches. Maybe fans of certain types of writing will subscribe to a blog or network that heavily caters to a certain niche of fiction or nonfiction. There doesn’t need to be one blogging platform.
  3. If you do genuinely have some honest advice or learnings to share with the world, do so genuinely. Please refrain from marketing tropes, because people can see through that shit. Tell the world what you know, how you feel about it, and if you pulled it from somewhere else, be honest about it. I love reading Jason Fried’s posts for this reason – he’s honest, witty and daring and has legitimate reason & experience to pull off all three.

I’m going to tag this post and hope it gets some likes and shares (which, by the way, you should do if you think it’s useful). It probably won’t, though, because I’m not a digital influencer with 500+ followers on Medium.

Yet.

Because I’ll keep trying.

Maybe I should read one of those “Top 10 Ways to Find Success on Medium” posts for help.

In Defense of Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz

Music that challenged me in 2015, part one

I haven’t written a “favorite albums” list in a few years, mostly because I realized that mine were virtually identical to most of those my friends would write up. That’s one of the unfortunate downsides of having friends in the music industry: if a band gets enough hype to be in a Top 10 list, everyone’s talking about that band.

2015 was one of the first years in a while, though, in which a lot of the buzzed-about music was downright ambitious: while there was plenty of crap for the masses to party/drone to, there were also plenty of musicians who stopped giving a fuck about playing nice and made cool, interesting, challenging music. Cases in point: Kendrick Lamar, Bjork’s Vulnicura, “Hotline Bling” and Titus Andronicus’ 90-minute manic depression rock opera, just to start.

I felt inspired by all this and had one of the more prolific years of writing music I’ve ever had. Some of the music I found most challenging and inspiring, though, was reviled, dismissed, or missed entirely by mainstream music journalism. I’d like to spend some time reflecting on the hidden genius of those songs and albums.

Let’s start with a doozy: Miley Cyrus and her Dead Petz, released via SoundCloud & VMA surprise in August.

I don’t dance much, but two songs this year made me start dancing more than any other: “King Kunta,” for obvious reasons, and Miley Cyrus’ “Slab of Butter (Scorpion).”

Don’t ask me why. I can’t explain it. But that damn bouncy synth texture paired with a fuzz bass made for my downtempo jam of 2015, and I’m not mad about it. I’m only mad when it ends, and then after 45 seconds of Miley talking about how drunk she is, the beat comes back in the form of a fun diss track called “I Forgive Yiew” (sic, but who cares? Miley sure doesn’t). The slow bounce continues for another 3 minutes, and it’s kind of glorious.

The next song, “I Get So Scared,” haunted the shit out of me when I first heard it. It still does, which is a weird thing to digest given that this is BASICALLY HANNAH MONTANA telling me that “they say love grows / but I’ve only seen it die.” After that happens, I find mellow euphoria in “Lighter,” a highly underrated 80s throwback.

People HATED this album. I don’t. It’s weird and sprawling and usually inappropriate, but every time I come back to it, I find another nugget of something charming, dark or downright beautiful. “I Get So Scared” is one of those nuggets.

Sure, it starts with the silly “Dooo It!”, but immediately after you get 2 solid ballads in “Karen Don’t Be Sad” and “The Floyd Song.” For every stupid track on this album, you get multiple gems. Sure, “Milky Milky Milk” is probably a song about lactating, but it has one of the coolest beats of the year. Sure, Miley cries when singing about Pablow her dead blowfish, but you can’t fault her for expressing some real emotion in a song. The 6-song run of “Cyrus Skies” to “Lighter” is pretty fantastic, and could make for an excellent psych-pop EP in itself.

I do think Miley brought some of the bad rap and flat-out dismissal upon herself – the “complete, full-metal DGAF” approach to album structure and focus, plus the fact that she made this album outside of her recording contract, lends the album to be taken both less seriously and more like it’s trying be taken seriously. Most of the negative or apathetic critical reaction has been based on the assumption that this album should be interpreted as higher-concept than it probably should be. And to those critics, it disappoints as a high-concept pet project.

But why should we treat Dead Petz as anything beyond what it is at face value? It’s a long, sprawling collection of songs covering several topics, some of which are very silly. Nobody gave Prince any flack about that when 1999 came out and contained a song about vinegar strokes and another one with 2 uncomfortable minutes of orgasm sounds. Why should Miley Cyrus be dismissed for calling a song “Bang Me Box” when Nicki Minaj can release a song glorifying her own ass, or a song about a girl who makes crack cocaine became one of the top hits of the year? (Oh and remember when a song about shooting up a school became a pop hit? Great job, music industry.) Dead Petz doesn’t need to be anything more than it is, and critics shouldn’t dismiss it because it doesn’t reach their impossibly high standards of long, ambitious works that break political or spiritual ground. It’s as if critics are no longer willing to let their subjects just unwind and not be taken too seriously.

If anything, this album disappoints me because it makes me wonder how it would have been accepted if a few throwaway tracks were removed and it was a bit more polished. If “Fuckin’ Fucked Up” (which should not be treated as anything more than an interlude) was removed from the track listing and was attached to “BB Talk” as a prelude, would people use it as an excuse to dismiss the album? “Something About Space Dude” is effectively a coda to “The Floyd Song” – what if Miley positioned these two separate tracks as a single 8-minute space rock epic, like what JT did with some of his solo material?

For those who want to give this album a second chance but can’t deal with the full 23 tracks, I propose a revised Dead Petz track listing, which is only an hour long:

  1. Dooo It! <— only because nothing else really works as an opener
  2. Karen, Don’t Be Sad
  3. The Floyd Song (Sunrise) w/ optional coda: Something About Space Dude
  4. Space Boots
  5. BB Talk
  6. Milky Milky Milk
  7. Cyrus Skies
  8. Slab of Butter (Scorpion) w/ optional coda: I’m So Drunk
  9. Lighter
  10. I Get So Scared
  11. I Forgive Yiew
  12. 1 Sun
  13. Pablow The Blowfish
  14. Miley Tibetan Bowlzzz (bonus track)

It’s really hard to take Miley Cyrus seriously, and that’s okay. Bizarrely enough, the thing that convinced me to have respect for her is the album in which she takes herself the least seriously. You should give this album a chance if you didn’t yet this year.

—-

Oh, and lastly, I put out an EP too, but it’s probably not on anyone’s best-of lists because I barely promoted it. Check it out, though! It’s fun.

Apple Music Connect, the experiment

Federico Viticci of MacStories wrote this yesterday and it got me thinking about Apple Music Connect, which I’ve started to check daily:

The responses to this tweet are varied, but they generally echo the sentiment that I've been seeing in music industry writing: it's largely doomed to fail. The UX is somewhat crap (not denying this) and the positioning is unclear (also not denying this). I'm sure Apple will work on this over time, but it's hard to convert users if they start off with a bad first impression (hey, iTunes Ping / Tidal / any other music network that fails to catch on).

But we shouldn't be surprised that Apple Music Connect is adopting slowly. For major artists, their labels (or the artists themselves) have already bought into another streaming service – most of the majors into Spotify, and the dozen-or-so upper-echelon folks who co-sponsored Tidal – so why should we expect them to suddenly release a single on Apple Music Connect for the sake of their fans? Fans by nature are rabid, so they’ll follow you to whichever network you choose (this is why Tidal didn’t die on arrival). What’s the incentive for Kanye West to post his new stuff on Apple Music?

SoundCloud is in a weird spot in that it has the adoption of millions (including Europe and Asia, perhaps most importantly), but isn't necessarily tied directly to labels. In other words, there’s no incentive for Kanye West to NOT post new music on SoundCloud – no conflict of interest, no problem. That said, the network's moves to partner with brands is probably causing other strings to pull artists toward it. The general public will probably never know the full scope of it, but it’s worth assuming that major artists are probably picking their music networks of choice very strategically.

But Apple Music (and more specifically, Connect) is not going to pick up like this, with the exception of a few possible artists with existing partnerships with Apple (read: Trent Reznor, Dr. Dre, Adele & Coldplay)1. And I’m fine with that: it’s not done. Apple admitted that they still have work to do. Anyone who’s tried to build or work at a startup knows the difficulty in launching a good MVP quickly. While we instinctively seem to hold Apple to a higher standard given their massive stack of cash, you can’t blame them for putting out a brand-new streaming music service and wanting to iterate & experiment. I’ll be a contrarian: I love the idea of integrating streaming & social music discovery within the existing music player. Why not talk about music in the same app that you listen to music? Sure, it may look cluttered due to “bad UX” and purposeless due to low adoption, but it’s an interesting approach at trying to bring the relationship between artist and listener closer to the music itself that establishes that relationship in the first place. That’s a pretty massive and difficult concept to get right, so I can’t be surprised that it’s a little messy the first go-around.

Any new, minimum-viable product requires iteration and experimentation. No matter what they say in PR announcements, Apple has to be trying to experiment with Connect. You can’t write a music product off immediately when artists don’t flock to it immediately; great things take time to get right.

  1. Woah, rhymes. ↩︎

At what point did humans say “I am born with the right to free music”? I am deeply saddened by the notion that price of your Chipotle burrito is worth more than the blood sweat and tears musicians across the world have poured into creating everlasting art, that brings passion to this earth far beyond any burrito.

my good friend Frank from the band Earthside, valuing the music he and his peers create.